William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) was born in 1731 in Berkhampstead, England. His life was one of tragedy and mental illness. His frail childhood was marked by the death of his mother when he was only 6 years old. Though he endured a terribly difficult education in a boarding school, he became quite gifted in the areas of law and poetry. The preliminary examinations for practicing law weighed heavily on Cowper’s anxious heart however, and he was sent to an asylum, or mental institution after he suffered a severe breakdown. It was here, in God’s good providence, that Cowper started to read Scripture. God used Romans 3 to breathe life into Cowper’s heart. “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” He wrote, “The full beams of the sun of righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification.”
Cowper’s depression and health improved greatly after his conversion. He was helped and blessed through several friendships that the Lord brought his way. One was with his pastor, John Newton, who helped Cowper become interested in many therapeutic hobbies and handicrafts: gardening, carpentering, a printing press, caring for pets of all kinds, and finally in writing a book of hymns together under the title “Olney Hymns” published in 1779. One of Cowper’s greatest contributions to this book and to hymnody itself is “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” originally titled, “Conflict: Light Shining out of Darkness.”
The specific circumstances under which he wrote this hymn are not known, but it is thought to be somehow connected with another great bout of depression and illness that yet again overthrew Cowper’s wellbeing in 1773. The main thesis of the hymn was the theme of poor Cowper’s life, time and time again. “Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face…” Cowper may have had a difficult time trusting God in His sovereignty and goodness in the darkest storms of his life. But God never forsakes or forgets those who put their faith in His Son. He died of dropsy at age 69 on April 25, 1800. It is said that on his deathbed, his face lit up as he said, “I am not shut out of heaven after all!”
Do please join us as we memorize these beautiful lines during the month of October. You may or may not already be familiar with the hymn. If it’s helpful to you, please use our YouTube channel to hear it so you can sing it with confidence. And don’t forget your free printable lyrics, music, and a copywork page to help you along.
We encourage you all to gather up your families, for just a few minutes each day, to sing, discuss and memorize this hymn, whether it is during family worship, or before bedtime – whatever works best for your family. By the end of October, you are encouraged to join us on Instagram and post either a photo or video inspired by the song. Every time you post, you will be entered into a drawing for a little something special. Just tag your post with #hymnofthemonth. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask! Let us know if you’ll be joining in!
**A quick note on the tune we chose for this hymn… Hymnals traditionally set Cowper’s words to a tune called “Dundee.” Personally, I’ve never thought this tune fit the deepness of the lyrics so I looked far and wide for an easy to sing, but more fitting tune for the hymn. We decided to go with “St Peter,” the same tune used for “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.” Turns out many feel the same way and end up writing their own tune for the hymn. There are a lot of options, both modern and older tunes that keep to the common metre time. You may use whatever your church uses, find one that resounds with you, or sing along with our choice. It’s totally up to you!
Singing along with you for the glory of the Sovereign One,